What’s the Difference Between the SAT and the SAT Subject Test?
For many students, the SAT test is the focus of an enormous amount of effort. There are prep classes, study books, online tutorials and much more to juggle. Some students, though, don’t realize that there is more than one type of SAT test. SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT IIs) are also the subject of much effort and sometimes equally as much confusion. While both kinds of SAT are administered by the College Board, they each have a unique purpose and their format and content are significantly different.
In this post, we will outline the primary differences between the SAT and SAT Subject Tests, along with how each is used by admissions committees and how students should plan for each. To learn more about SAT Subject Tests and how they stack up to the SAT, keep reading.
Before we get into the nitty gritty details, let’s take a look at each test and what it aims to do.
What Is the SAT?
The SAT is a general assessment of your college readiness. It contains sections that test your skills in math, both with and without a calculator, along with reading, writing and language, and an optional essay section. The skills assessed by the SAT are broad ones—essentially, it intends to gauge your readiness for college level work by assessing your critical and analytical thinking skills and your ability to apply knowledge across multiple disciplines.
The SAT does not assess specific content knowledge, but will sometimes ask you to apply your knowledge in new or different ways. To learn more about the format and content of the SAT, check out these posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test
- The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Writing and Language Test
- Five Tips to Boost Your Score on the Reading SAT
What Are SAT Subject Tests?
SAT Subject Tests fill in where the regular SAT does not. It, in essence, sheds light onto your specific content area knowledge and measures your achievement in a particular subject area. For a comprehensive list of tests, see our post Complete List of SAT Subject Tests.
Unlike the SAT, each of the SAT Subject Tests assesses only your knowledge within that content area. To learn more about SAT Subject Tests, see our post What Are SAT Subject Tests?
Why Take Each Test?
SATs (along with the ACT) are one of the standardized tests accepted to meet standardized testing requirements at many colleges across the country. If you plan to attend a college with a standardized testing requirement, you’ll need to either submit an SAT or an ACT score.
SAT Subject Tests are not required by nearly as many schools and those that do require them often allow you to choose which you take. For example, some schools will request that you submit two SAT Subject Test scores of your own choosing. Others will request that you submit one SAT Subject Test score in a foreign language or other specific discipline. In these cases, you will have at least some leeway over which tests you choose to take. Still other colleges don’t require any SAT Subject Test scores to be submitted, but most will still review your scores should you choose to submit them anyway.
What Does Each Test Measure?
The SAT measures broad skills and general college readiness. It assesses your critical and analytical thinking skills along with your ability to apply what you know.
SAT Subject Tests measure your skills and content specific knowledge within specific subject areas. You can think of them as standardized tests to assess how much you have learned in particular high school classes.
How Long Does Each Test Take?
The SAT takes about half a day to complete. If you are taking the optional essay section, your testing time will be just under four hours. If you choose not to compete the essay, your testing time will be closer to three hours.
SAT Subject Tests, in contrast, take much less time to complete. They generally last only a little more than an hour.
When Are the Tests Offered?
SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same days and at the same testing centers as the regular SAT, with a few exceptions. While the SAT is offered seven times per year, SAT Subject Tests are only available on six of those dates. In addition, it’s important to know that not all SAT Subject Tests are available on every date. For a comprehensive calendar of when each SAT Subject Test is offered, see the CollegeBoard’s SAT Subject Test Dates.
How Are the Tests Scored?
The SAT is scored on a scale from 400-1600 with a separate score given for the optional essay. It is not scored on a curve, and points are not deducted for wrong answers.
SAT Subject Tests are scored on a scale from 200-800. Like the SAT, they are not scored on a curve, but unlike the SAT, a fraction of a point is deducted for each wrong answer on multiple choice questions.
How Are the Tests Used By Admissions Committees?
Without a doubt, the SAT is more heavily weighted in admissions decisions than are SAT Subject Tests. SATs are accepted by every four-year college across the country and are in fact one of two tests required by many. They are often regarded as a major component of your application.
In contrast, the weight given to SAT Subject Tests varies widely. Often, SAT Subject Test scores are weighted similarly to other application components like AP classes and scores, and honors level work. Sometimes, though, if you apply to a specific program or specialty, your SAT Subject Test might take on more weight. For example, if you are hoping to enter a BS/MD program, your Chemistry SAT Subject Test will be given more consideration.
Further, your SAT Subject Test scores can sometimes be used to test out of certain introductory requirements or prerequisites at your college. For example, if you score well on the French SAT Subject Test, you might not be required to meet your school’s foreign language requirement.
How Should I Prepare for Each Test?
Because the SAT is a very unique test that evaluates skills you may have never been tested in before, you need to prepare specifically for it. That often means joining SAT study groups, taking online tutorials, completing multiple practice tests, and sometimes even using an SAT tutor to help brush up on your strategy. For more information about studying for the SAT, see these posts:
SAT Subject Tests are still unique tests, so your preparations might be fairly similar to the SAT, but you will also need to brush up on your content level knowledge, too. Overall, while you’ll still take practice tests and work on test strategy, you’ll also need to spend a lot of time studying the subject-specific knowledge that you’re likely to find on the test.
To learn more about studying for SAT Subject Tests, see 5 Strategies for Tackling SAT Subject Tests.
SAT Subject Test and SAT Planning Considerations
- Think ahead about which SAT Subject Tests you want to take and know which dates they’re offered on. As you make your SAT calendar, consider these dates reserved for Subject Tests so that you don’t find yourself double-booked.
- Whenever possible, try to take the SAT Subject Test close to the time you’re completing the related high school class. For many students this means taking the Chemistry or Calculus SAT Subject Test during the spring of your junior year. For cumulative subjects like foreign languages, try to take them in the fall of your senior year when you’ll have the most instructional hours under your belt.
- Remember that different SAT Subject Tests have different formats and know what to expect going into each one. To learn more about the formats specific to each, check out the CollegeBoard’s Subject Areas overview.
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